Usually the discussion group of senior citizens with whom I meet weekly at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills mall touch on myriad things in the news -- Christopher Dorner, the new pope, the latest instance of Republican recalcitrance on Capitol Hill. This week was a first in that we hewed for more than an hour to a single subject: gay marriage.
The subject's been tough to avoid, of course. The Supreme Court is currently hearing two long-awaited cases that raise the biggest question about whether gays have the fundamental right to marry and to enjoy the privileges therein; one of the cases out of California involves our own Prop 8, one of those initiatives that's already taken on a kind of mythical status in our social history, like 13 and 209. Our discussion group has brought up gay marriage before but we'd never talked about it extensively, until now. So what was the verdict? One, that gays should absolutely have the right to marry. And two, that gays and everybody else need to stop conflating gay rights with civil rights, and the fight for marriage equality with the fight for racial equality.
It's not that there isn't any overlap, my group said. Of course there is. Of course all the "rights" movements rooted in the '60s -- for gays, women, Chicanos, disabled folks, and so on -- borrowed the civil rights model of struggle and made similar moral arguments for justice and equal treatment under the law that blacks have been making for a hundred and fifty years. That's as it should be. What rankled my group was a sense that the comparison is superficial. These days, it seems, everyone invokes black civil rights and its icons only when it's convenient for their own cause; the modern reality of racial inequality and the moral questions it still raises is never talked about at all. It's as if all of black history has been reduced to a talking point, a rhetorical device deployed by various groups at critical moments. And then it's put back in the political arsenal and forgotten until it's needed again.
Call it the other side of the race card -- a favorable, almost worshipful view of black folks that still reduces us to a notion or a meme. The group also talked about how gay rights groups complained that blacks overwhelmingly voted for Prop 8 back when it was first on the ballot. Other groups did too, including white evangelicals, but the rather privileged assumption was that blacks would automatically vote for the rights of any group simply because struggle is in our DNA. It didn't occur to anybody that blacks are quite churchgoing and have been historically socially conservative on matters other than civil rights, or -- and this was more important -- that blacks as a group had not been recruited to the cause of gay rights at all. That kind of concerted political neglect coupled with political expectation is the same clueless treatment we get from whites everywhere, whatever their cause, and the gay rights movement is widely seen among blacks as a white thing.
All that said, my group of very savvy seniors -- some of whom are those black churchgoers -- have no problem with gays marrying. The fact is, the civil rights framework does strike a chord, does tap into some of our outrage about separate-but-equal hypocrisy embedded in proposed laws of exclusion. And some of my students have gay friends and relatives whose very existence have already made the case for. But however the Supreme Court goes, we all hope that gay rights advocates -- and all advocates -- understand that a comparison of black struggle to any struggle without acknowledging the differences along with the commonalities is only skin deep.